October 07, 2008

Mumbai's Sweep to Shanghai: JBD

Two years ago, my father, JB D'Souza, wrote this short article. I don't know if it was published anywhere. It's a quick introduction to the concept of development rights, in particular their transfer (what's come to be known as TDR).

You will note that he ends one para below referring to a "device that our High Court has wisely stopped." If he was alive today, he would have been dismayed that the Supreme Court has since overturned that HC ruling (about a month ago).

He called this short essay "Mumbai's Sweep to Shanghai". It appears here almost exactly as he wrote it, apart from a few corrections to account for the two years that have passed.


In a surprise decision, the Bombay High Court recently lifted the ban on the transfer of Development Rights to Mumbai’s suburban areas adjoining the rail lines.

I don’t quite remember, but wasn’t it Bertrand Russell who discovered a close relation between a person’s readiness to pontificate on a subject and his/her ignorance of its implications? That question didn’t, of course, apply to the Honourable Court’s ruling. Nearly twenty years ago the Maharashtra government asked a group of wiseacres – I was one of them – to review Mumbai’s Development Plan (Draft) before it got Government approval. The draft before us timidly proposed the adoption of a new concept, Development Rights. We pounced eagerly on the concept as a way out of the Municipal Corporation’s dilemma: how to secure the land the Plan was going to reserve for public amenities, when the cost of acquiring those plots far exceeded the resources at the Corporation’s disposal. It was an attempt to separate land from its development potential, which were to be recognized as a Development Right. We promoted the award of Development Rights to landowners who gave up their plots to the Corporation, earning Development Rights equal to the FSI those plots would have but for the reservation.

Development Rights transferred from elsewhere could also be used to induce the owners of old and crumbling houses to rebuild their houses, rehousing their existing tenants. Sadly, this facility gave rise to widespread misuse, when the ingenuity of our developers began to create fake tenancies on a large scale, a device that our High Court has wisely stopped.

We also thought the same device could be used to encourage the owners of plots covered by hutment slums to rehouse the occupants.

We proposed some restrictions: TDR could be used only to transfer development potential from the island city to the suburbs, or from a plot in the suburbs to another plot northward of the reserved land. Agreeing with the BMC’s planners, we closed the zones adjoining the railway lines to the use of Development Rights earned elsewhere. This was because those zones were already crowded with existing users, and there was little prospect of augmenting the already overstretched infrastructure there.

Finally, we put an outside limit: TDR could raise the FSI by only 40 percent over what was normally permitted on the receiving plot.

The restrictions we (and the BMC) envisaged were based on an old-fashioned belief that the FSI and density limits in an area (and to any plot within it) MUST be related to the infrastructure available in that area. So that if the existing water supply, sewerage, recreational areas, road widths, common facilities and other amenities in a locality were already inadequate, no rise in the FSI could be contemplated in that locality, and the transfer of Development Rights there would not be allowed. That belief seems to have been successfully challenged, and now abandoned by the authorities.

They may have a point, though. If TDR is granted for the rehabilitation of hutment people, those people are already somehow consuming a certain part of the infrastructure available in the city. Re- housing them will not increase that consumption. I am more than a bit skeptical of this argument. The opening of the TDR facility to areas adjoining the suburban railway lines, for instance, will surely add to their passenger load. Can our railways cope with such an addition? How will the BMC’s sewerage lines, designed for certain densities, cope with a surge in sewage flows in particular localities?

Perhaps these are typical problems that the authorities face. They generally handle them with a generous sweep under the carpet. That is what will inevitably happen in Mumbai’s glorious progress into a Shanghai, as our enlightened Chief Minister dreams.

On the other hand, it may be useful to seek from the Honourable High Court a review of its sweeping decision.

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